Enlightened, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Key & Peele: a three-pronged beacon of hope for television. What a great cross-section of the different industrial and creative worlds that can be built within the medium; in fact, Key & Peele is an excellent example of the potential that digital production holds for imploding the preconceived notions of TV as a form. I want to talk about these three texts chronologically, as historical placeholders in the development of the televisual medium.
First of all, I’m fascinated by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In my opinion, it defined the structure and cultural function of the modern sitcom as we know it, even beyond any of the seminal creations of Norman Lear (All In the Family, et al). As Jane Feuer notes in “MTM Quality Television,” the sitcom is a foolproof kind of ideology machine: a text that presents an unresolvable situation and then neatly solves it, with a familiar sequences of narrative steps, inside a half hour, by characters we know in an environment we know. But to stop there at the junction of Barthes and Althusser with an analysis of sitcoms – and indeed all “trash TV” – is a grave misstep. What makes MTM “quality”? Feuer talks about the unusual (for the industry) “creative freedoms” afforded to above-the-line personnel; she talks about the depth of character study that set MTM apart from its counterparts; she talks about the high comedic pedigree of its cast; she talks about its sense of self-reflexivity, of ingrained audience media literacy, as a hallmark of quality. I’m most interested in the second point – characters as texts unto themselves.
“Horror” – what a shapeshifter of a word. We use “horror” to describe a film genre that we associate with Freudian fear and fantasy, buckets of blood, an exaggerated picture of the dark; and yet we can also call race-based state violence a “horror,” or watch a TV special about the “horrors” of Black Americans forced to live in rat-infested ghettos. This week I found myself really interested in the multi-faceted uses and interpretations of horror – how do we reconcile the human anxieties we represent with fictionalized atrocities, vs. the real atrocities of human life that manifest in deep fissures of anxiety in society?
The specter of lesbianism stalks the periphery of These Three (1936) at every turn. Even though this adaptation of the overtly lesbian dramatic novel The Children’s Hour was actually adapted for the screen by the original writer Lillian Hellman, the resulting film stands more as a compelling example of the ham-handed Hays Code than a completely viable text. The character Joe becomes an embodiment of suppression, a substitute for female/female sexuality, a corporeal form behind with the true theme of lesbian love and struggle hides in plain sight. Watching this film is such a strange experience, especially for one familiar with the source material. I could liken it to eating a cake that was made with a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar, and telling yourself with every bite that the saltiness is SUPPOSED to represent sweetness. As “unnamed and invisible” as lesbian romance and sexuality is in the Code, it finds a weird kind of vitality when male sexual mores attempt to define it, refine it, or erase it. Foucault also touches on this sort of self-defeating mechanism of sexual repression as an act of tamping down “useless energies and the intensity of pleasure.”
Is film noir just an artifact, a cinema movement with a beginning and an end? Many modern filmmakers (and showrunners) play with the stylistic conventions of noir as a kind of postmodern exercise – sometimes for the pleasure of pastiche (looking at you, Woody Allen), or maybe to fetishize history (Mad Men occasionally flirts with noir-ness). Personally, I feel a kind of detachment from noir; I read noir works like dated fables about American society. Noir is weird because it’s deeply entwined with a certain era of American filmmaking only a couple of decades long, and there’s a temptation to compartmentalize it. Though noir films work through the issues of a broken society and American (masculine) identity – issues that surely exist in infinite complexity in 2015 – could we still work within it as a relevant genre?
One of the things that makes Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing such a compelling film, no matter the time or the context, is its one-of-a-kind sense of style. Lee’s vision is urgently alive with image and sound, full of quick cuts, jarring angles, and uncannily intimate POV shots. Its vividity is at once cartoonish and raw. What we’re seeing is one auteur’s interpretation of the matrix of racist ideologies in which we all live, and because this film is an opus of self-identity, it’s formulated like an audiovisual missile. I’m interested in exploring the question of why the sounds, images, and spoken dialogue of Do the Right Thing are designed to hit hard, and how this film embodies Robert Stam (and others’) characterization of New Black Cinema.
I find that Foucault’s characterization of the Panopticon – the surveillance-based system of imprisonment and self-discipline originally postulated by Jeremy Bentham – can be applied in a million fascinating ways to film analysis. Panopticism, essentially, ensures that a subject is constantly contained in a state of paranoia and behavioral self-regulation as she can never be sure if she is being watched and/or measured up for some kind of punishment by the authority (sometimes the state apparatus).
The black female subject often operates under a kind of cultural panopticism. Her body, as a site of intersection between racial and gender identity, is under scrutiny; however, as a subject, she is hard-pressed to find a context in which she may hold the power of the gaze (or indeed even find a media representation of herself which removes the specters of patriarchy and white supremacy, and allows her a complex, private internal world).
I’ve come to organize my ideas on sound (and how we hear) into two lines of thought: that pursuing pleasure through sound is an active mechanism, and pursuing truth through sound is an automatic mechanism that is constantly confronted. Of course, sensual pleasure and truth/positive identification are related, but like Freud says, they arise separately and are later conflated. I’ll get to truth later, but first I wanted to engage the concept of aural pleasure.
I’ve decided to start posting some of my work as I happily plod my way through the Masters in Cinema & Media Studies program at UCLA. It’ll be a lot of dense theory mixed with my usual manic fangirl stuff. I’ll list all my references, films, TV, etc at the bottom. Enjoy!
At first glance, Christian Metz’s analysis of the cinematic apparatus appears to engage Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in a straightforward way; he begins with the child conceiving of himself (and all that makes him human and corporeal and cognizant) through gazing at his own reflection in a mirror. But the amount of “perceptual wealth” that Metz describes in audiovisual media, particularly film, requires an apparatus with far more nuance than the child’s first mirror. Metz really deconstructs the very nature of watching fiction in “The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema” – and the important distinction which serves as a jumping-off point is that the viewer (unlike the child) identifies himself as the character, not the spectator. S/he not only views a film as a passive appreciator – like a museum-goer – s/he essentially jumps in, seeing her/himself within the action of the world and seeing him/herself seeing the film. Metz’ audience is hyperaware of filmic fiction’s need for an audience, to function and to be comprehensible. “At every moment, I am in the film by my look’s caress.”
Academic paper! Proof that college happened! This is why you need to major in Media Studies, everybody: because a day when you announce to your class that you’re going to write 20 pages on sweaty dancing gays is ANY OTHER DAY.
Separated by a dance floor, two bastions of masculinity are suggestively gyrating to a pulsing bass beat. Towards the go-go cages, one man carelessly tosses away his soaked tee, revealing miles of carefully conditioned muscles. On the other side by the bar, the second man expertly swivels his backside, which is encased in skintight leather. The song changes, glances are exchanged, and the two join in the middle of the floor for a steamy introduction. Apart, they were pillars squarely on one side of the gender divide; together, they become an infinitely more powerful emblem of maleness and yet a pair which exists outside the matrix of masculinity…